The NBA Doesn't Have a Ratings Problem -- It Has a Technology Problem
Updated: Dec 25, 2019
The NBA has a ratings problem.
Unless they don't -- we're not actually sure, and that, as much as the dip in ratings, may be a problem of its own.
Confused? You should be. The league has found itself staring down some rather disturbing returns for the still-young season regarding the number of eyes watching games for the 2019-20 NBA season, and, well...they aren't good.
With losses in estimated viewership clocking in at anywhere from high single-digit losses to as much as 20 %, the league has some things to figure out, and what might be behind the lower numbers is only one of them.
To start with is the issue of whether the numbers are actually lower in the first place; with people increasingly converting to "cable cutters", fewer and fewer people are watching games on television in the comfort of their homes.
But does that mean they aren't watching?
Some have made the shift to the NBA's own streaming application, League Pass, while others use sanctioned online streaming services such as NBA.TV.
An unknown number of others pirate illegal streams widely available on the internet.
Still others watch condensed game replays and highlights on sites like YouTube and Streamable, and, taken together, it's very difficult to get a good picture of how many people are actually watching NBA games and/or the best parts of each on a nightly basis.
Throw in a number of other factors, and the whole thing becomes almost dizzyingly complex. For example, ratings may be down -- assuming they are, that is -- because of:
- The aforementioned drop in cable subscribers
- The concurrent boost to streaming viewers using illicit and non-live services
- Political issues like the unexpected conflict with China earlier in the season
- Lagging interest in the league with no clearly dominant team
- The fact most of the season's biggest games are later in the season
- Waning viewership due to a large number of stars being out injured
It could be some, none, or all of these issues in combination, and if stemming from anything besides a technology-driven range of problems, then the league has even more impetus to address some of the others issues driving the drop in eyes on screens.
For example, the length of the season at 82 games coupled with changes in the style of play may be related to the number of injured players, and there's entirely different issues which could arise if the NBA tinkered with rules just to allow for the formation of superteams to be a more common practice.
Political concerns like that sparked by a fairly innocuous (at least, to Western eyes) tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey are hard to predict, and harder still to fix once begun, The NBA may be reassessing the degree of investment it will have in China as a result of the kerfuffle, but it may also simply be hoping the issue simply fades away.
Whatever the case, it's plans can't be very aggressive given how easy it is to rock that particular boat, so if it was Chinese viewers who departed, the best solution may be to simply do nothing at all.
If, however, the issue is technology driven, a more simple approach might be effected, one the league ought to be exploring anyway.
Eliminating the middlemen with their own streaming network.
This is not a reference to league pass, at least not exactly. That service -- notoriously buggy with frequent geographical blackouts -- is perhaps a jumping off point at best.
Something with tiered access -- perhaps the existing paid model of the product currently available with its own advertising plastered across every available surface in each potential moment could provide a strong flow of revenue to the league with a reliable headcount attached.
An added fee could then be paid to eliminate advertising, modest enough to prevent pirating, with good enough quality at all levels for the same reason -- a path that might require some expensive but ultimately worthwhile renegotiations with broadcast partners.
While it may be some time before we even are sure the NBA has a viewership problem at all, it's a wiser move to embrace the ways younger and more technologically adept viewers are consuming the league's product.
To do otherwise risks being king of a hollowed-out kingdom, a mayor of a ghost town with an aging subscriber base and little room to grow.
For a league trying to make moves towards becoming a truly international sport, an option able to reach an increasingly global, cellular-only world may be the best option to rope in an entirely new audience in parts of the world cable television and even personal computers may be too expensive for many to own.
The landscape of league viewership is at an inflection point regardless of the other aspects which may also be affecting recent NBA ratings.
And it behooves the league to take early adoption of changing viewership patterns ahead of competing sports and their fandoms if it's serious about boosting its worldwide popularity...
...to say nothing of regaining a paltry 15 % of previous viewers.